Cohen, Feeley, Altemose & Rambo
Call Us Today For A FREE Consultation 610-295-5321
Click For A Free Consultation 610-295-5321
Areas of Practice

The Pen is Freer than the Sword

The Pen is Freer than the Sword

Understanding the basics of your free speech rights

Whether it's high school students or adults, everyone has heard of the freedom of speech. The phrase "free speech" is normally thrown around as more of a truism than anything else nowadays, though. You're more likely to hear a discussion of free speech sparked up by someone bringing it up in the middle of a casual argument - which, not coincidentally, is the wrong place to try to apply it.

Free speech is a constitutional right, and one that we probably take for granted too often. In today's changing political and legal climate, however, it's very important to understand precisely what your rights are. More and more, we are seeing pushes to reduce or rescind free speech rights. It's the average person who benefits from these rights, and you could quickly find yourself in legal trouble if your university, city, or state decides to cut back. Fortunately, your rights don't go away just because someone doesn't like what you say.

Let's start with the first amendment. It states, in relevant part, "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech[.]"

The first amendment makes it very clear: Congress may not pass a law which abridges the freedom of speech. Of course, the devil is in the details. The constitutional restriction on the government banning your speech isn't all-encompassing - but it is just shy of it.

If you are wondering if your free speech rights have been violated, the first and most important step is to figure out who has silenced you, if anyone. Constitutional rights are restrictions on government action. They do not apply to private entities, such as private citizens, corporations, or your politically incorrect uncle at the family reunion. Freedom of speech does apply to the federal government, your state government, and even your local governments. Some other entities which you may not have guessed, but which are indeed bound by the constitution, are public universities. As we'll see in upcoming posts, universities are the hotspot for free speech litigation in the last three years.

Now, what kind of speech is permitted? A governmental entity may not censor you because of the substance of your speech, generally speaking. This is especially true when it comes to political talk. Let's take an easy example. If there are three people in a room, and each one likes a different political candidate - Trump, Sanders, and Clinton, for instance - and the government tries to pass a law making it criminal to talk favorably about one of the candidates, that law will most definitely be ruled unconstitutional. This is what's known as viewpoint discrimination, and it is unconstitutional for a government to try to enforce it. Viewpoint discrimination is when the government attempts to ban just one side of the argument. Think about how backwards our society would be if the government was allowed to make a crime to support a particular candidate! Sadly, we have recently seen several public universities attempting to take unconstitutional disciplinary action against students for this very reason.

Courts no longer use a different standard for political speech than other speech, but it still stands true that political speech lies at the center of free speech. The Courts' attitude is that, if the government were allowed to censor political speech, it could control the democratic process in an illegitimate way. It's for fear of this kind of authoritarianism that the Courts protect our national tradition for wide-open, robust, and uninhibited debate on all political issues.

Viewpoint discrimination is easily one of the most common forms of speech discrimination, but it's by far not the only one. Most of the time, if your right to freely speak has been violated, the situation won't be as clear cut as the example above. This primer is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to free speech. In upcoming weeks, I'll go into much more detail concerning exceptions, recent events, analyses, and answering frequently asked questions.

But, most importantly, if you feel as though your rights have been violated, know that you have recourse. Suits have been successfully brought against public universities, government agencies, and other free speech offenders, often forcing them to repeal their unconstitutional policies.

No one deserves to be silenced.

Contact Cohen, Feeley, Altemose & Rambo at 610-625-2100.

No Comments

Leave a comment
Comment Information

Take The First Step And Contact Us

Bold labels are required.

Contact Information

The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.


Privacy Policy

Awards and Memberships

  • who's who legal
  • Global Who's Who Best Lawyers in Pennsylvania
  • Million dollar advocates forum
  • bar register of preeminent lawyers
  • the best lawyers in america
  • the national top 100 trial lawyers
  • national board of trial advocacy est 1977
  • A Proud member of the chamber greater lehigh valley chamber of commerce
  • Super lawyers pennsylvania Super lawyers and Rising stars
  • Best lawyers best law firms us news 2016
  • AV preeminent martindale-hubbell lawyer ratings highest rating

Our Locations

With three Lehigh Valley office locations in Bethlehem, Whitehall and Stroudsburg, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. map-image map-image map-image

Bethlehem Office
2851 Baglyos Circle, Suite 200
Bethlehem, PA 18020

Toll Free: 888-854-6895
Phone: 610-295-5321
Fax: 610-332-2722
Bethlehem Law Office Map

Whitehall Office
352 5th Street, Suite C
Whitehall, PA 18052

Toll Free: 888-854-6895
Phone: 610-295-5321
Whitehall Law Office Map

Stroudsburg Office
706 Monroe St.
Stroudsburg, PA 18360

Stroudsburg Law Office Map

Call Us Today For A
Free Consultation